Sinners Who Think They’re Saints, Saints Who Know They’re Sinners

St. Francis de Sales and the Paradox of Loving God Enough

Giovanni Battista Lucini, “St. Francis de Sales,” 1665
Giovanni Battista Lucini, “St. Francis de Sales,” 1665 (photo: Public Domain)

What is it about a paradox that is so satisfying to the mind and yet frustrating? There are few, if any, deep and profound truths about God and ourselves that do not involve some kind of paradox. A paradox, of course, is a mystery that appears to be a contradiction but is not; it is some truth that we cannot fully see. As Stephen Barr has put it so well in Modern Physics, Ancient Faith which deals with all kinds of paradoxes: “Dogmas do not shut off thought, like a wall. Rather, they open to the mind vistas that are too deep and broad for our vision. A mystery is what cannot be seen, not because there is a barrier across our field of vision, but because the horizon is so far away. It is a statement not of limits, but of limitlessness.” Our limited vision cannot survey the unlimited reality we seek.

There are a few paradoxes I learned from Peter Kreeft that have continually come to mind. One of which is the statement that there are two kinds of people in the world: the fools who think they are wise, and the wise who know they are fools. In studying Kreeft’s logic textbook, I found the same idea expressed in Shakespeare: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” This idea is the basis for the titles of two of my books (The Wiseguy and the Fool, and A Fool’s Errand). We, as humans, can never fully grasp the ultimate basis of reality. We cannot wrap our minds around the essence of God or even ourselves. Therefore, it is true wisdom to recognize that we are ultimately fools when it comes to the most important truths. That doesn’t mean we can’t make true statements, but we must remain humble.

And that brings me to another Kreeftian paradox about two kinds of people: the proud who think they are humble, and the humble who know they are proud. I will never forget the first time I read this line from C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity: “If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.” I remember it clearly because it cut me to the quick; I was convinced that I was not at all conceited. I still am sometimes. Or most of the time. Alas.

The third division of two types of people involves the saints: sinners who think they are saints, and saints who know they are sinners. St. Paul calls himself the greatest of sinners. No one in history has been more firmly convinced of their own sinfulness and brokenness than the saints. The healthier we get, the more we realize how sick we are. George MacDonald wrote, “The nearer a man gets to being a beast the less he knows it.”

There is an element of deep sadness in each of these paradoxes because they all necessarily imply the deep brokenness of our world and our current human condition. But there is also a deeper element of joy since true wisdom, humility, and sanctity are real and simpler perhaps than we think. These three paradoxes are all related since humility, wisdom, and sanctity are all intertwined; they work together.

Meditating on these mysteries prepared me for another paradox I came across in St. Francis de Sales’ Treatise on the Love of God. “That mortal who does not desire to love the Divine Goodness more, loves him not enough.” Once again, it seems that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who don’t love God enough because they think they do, and those who love God enough because they know they don’t. Those who most abound in their love of God are convinced of their own lack of love for God. This paradox ties the other three together and gives them a higher purpose. The greatest of these is love. All is directed toward God.

What if I find that I am convinced of my own wisdom, humility, sanctity, and sufficiency of love and thus I am foolish, proud, unholy, and indifferent toward God? I keep these paradoxes before me, and I know that they are true. It is also true that wisdom, humility, sanctity and divine love are gifts, pure grace from the Source of all goodness. If I am lacking in some good I know I need, I beg. Everything is a gift, even the desire for the gift, even the knowledge of the need for the gift. There is no magic formula. I can only cooperate with the work of the Spirit, and my first act of cooperation is to ask in prayer for what I know I need. That first awareness is already a sign of God’s mysterious work.